The mayor of Greater Manchester has set out his key demands after Avanti West Coast was given another chance to sort itself out by the Government. The company's reputation has taken a battering after making the controversial decision to slash its timetable between Manchester and London to one service an hour on August 8.
Andy Burnham slammed the move as 'nothing short of a disgrace' at the time. It formed just part of the misery for Avanti customers, as ticket sales were also suspended and full timetables were not published in advance as expected.
Two ultimatums were issued by Mr Burnham, on August 26 and yesterday (October 6), to get Avanti's timetable back on track. Now, the Government has announced Avanti has a new contract and six months to improve its performance, with Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan insisting the operator must prove it is 'capable of running this crucial route to a standard passengers deserve and expect'.
READ MORE: "The Government has rewarded chaos and failure": Anger in Greater Manchester as Avanti handed new six-month rail contract
In a statement, Mr Burnham welcomed the Government's intent to keep an eye on Avanti West Coast. But the mayor wants to see leaders in Westminster go further and faster, and has laid out two key demands to make sure Avanti isn't allowed to let standards slip.
First, he says the Government must monitor Avanti's performance day-to-day, and publish the findings every week. Second, he wants the Government to consider Avanti's contract again in mid-December, along with mayors and leaders from London, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
And if the company's performance is not deemed good enough by then, Mr Burnham says Government must prepare for a new operator to take over in April 2023. "Putting Avanti West Coast on notice marks a significant shift in tone under the new Secretary of State," he said.
"At last, there is a clear recognition of the crisis engulfing the country’s most important railway line and the management failure that has led to that. However, the lack of an acceptable rescue plan from the company - and clear conditions from the Government - means very few people in Greater Manchester will support this extension.
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“The damage that Avanti’s failing service is inflicting on our economy, and the huge disruption to passengers, is completely unacceptable. The company has shown itself to be unable to stabilise their service and fix problems with ticketing and the on-board experience for passengers. The thought of another six months of what we’re currently experiencing is a huge concern."
The extension to Avanti West Coast's contract comes at what is usually a busy time for Manchester in the final few months of the year. With the annual Christmas Markets and major events such as the Warehouse Project, the city expects to see millions of visitors by the end of the year.
Leaders in Greater Manchester will be hoping to see firm improvements but patience for Avanti West Coast is already thin. "Time and time again Avanti has let passengers down, cost the taxpayer money and damaged the economy," Manchester City Council leader Coun Bev Craig told the M.E.N.
"It's not acceptable that the Government has rewarded chaos and failure. The Government must take responsibility in getting a grip on travel between the UK's major cities and act fast. We need a regular, stable and reliable service now between Manchester and London and we cannot wait for it."
Concerns about the network are not just confined to Greater Manchester. Lord Patrick McLoughlin, chair of Transport for the North (TfN), said: "Our members are naturally disappointed, as it’s communities and businesses across the North that are being impacted by this sub-par level of service that is undermining economic growth and the well-being of many people across the region who haven’t been able to rely on this service for far too long now.
“Returning to having a good, reliable service on the West Coast Mainline is a pro-growth policy that will benefit the North of England’s economy, and as such it should be a priority as the current level of service is just not acceptable. There now needs to be a clear action plan in place with transparent targets and consequences for the company if they do not meet them - and TfN are ready and willing to help provide oversight if called upon - as what matters above all else is getting back to putting passengers first.”
Following this morning's announcement, the rail regulator confirmed it had received assurances from Avanti that it would return to providing timetables at least six weeks in advance of travel. Stephanie Tobyn, Director of Strategy, Policy and Reform at the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), said the body would 'continue to review Avanti's progress on a weekly basis' while passenger watchdog Transport Focus monitors customer experience.
Avanti insists it is restoring more frequent services between London and Manchester at 'key times of the day', and hopes to have a full timetable of three trains an hour restored in December. Yesterday, an Avanti spokesperson told the M.E.N. : "We know that at the moment we’re not delivering the service our customers rightly expect and we apologise for the enormous frustration and inconvenience this is causing."
A Department for Transport spokesperson told the M.E.N. : "The Department for Transport has placed Avanti West Coast on a short-term contract and will closely monitor Avanti’s performance and the roll out of their recovery plan over the next six months to ensure the best possible service for passengers." Avanti West Coast was also approached for comment following Mr Burnham's statement.
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